The Landmark Battle over Joyce's 'Ulysses'
Although parts of Ulysses had been serialized in The Little Review, a literary journal, the post-modernist masterpiece was first published in its entirety not in Joyce's native Ireland, or even in England or America, but in Paris by Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Company 86 years ago today.At a trial in 1921, The Little Review was declared obscene and as a result Ulysses was banned in the
This is because some of Joyce's earlier work had been cited for obscenity and there was a masturbation scene in a serialized chapter from Ulysses that aroused great condemnation.
Bennett Cerf, the co-founder of Random House, then contested the seizure, and in
In a landmark decision that was upheld on appeal, Woolsey acknowledged the success of Joyce's use of the "stream of consciousness" technique. He stated that the novel was serious and that its author was sincere and honest in showing how the minds of his characters operate and what they were thinking. Some of their thoughts, the judge noted, were expressed in "old Saxon words" familiar to readers, and:
"[I]n respect of the recurrent emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of [Joyce's] characters, it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring."Woolsey said that for Joyce to have failed to tell fully what his characters thought would have been "artistically inexcusable." Having found that Ulysses was not pornographic, the judge then turned to the pivotal question of whether it was obscene within the meaning of the law. That meaning, as set forth in the legal cases that he cited, was whether the work "tend[ed] to stir the sex impulses or to lead to sexually impure and lustful thoughts."
The judge found that the book when read in its entirety did not do so:
"[W]hilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac."Immediately after the ruling, Cerf instructed typesetters to start work on an English edition of the book and 100 copies were published in January 1934 to obtain U.S. copyright.
The battle over Ulysses seems quaint today considering that the popular media and literature are rife with images and words that are not for the young or faint of heart. But with book banners and other scolds still abroad in the land, it is well worth pausing today to celebrate Joyce, Beach, Cerf and Woolsey.